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Ya Need a Needle
September 30, 2018

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Where’s the needle in this picture? In my beard, my hat or my bandana? Why do I need it? Read on.

Out here roaming the Virginia Highlands with our mules, we’re in possession of a sliver of steel as important as lentils, hoof boots and butt cheek callouses.
That would be the humble needle. The good old fashioned, honest-as-a-Norman-Rockwell-painting needle. The humble needle that harks back to the days of mending socks and shirts and your britches when they split. Recently, that little sucker kept the mule train heading up the trail.

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On the road. I’m riding Brick and leading Polly. Julia is riding Dusty.

A few days ago, in a soggy Appalachian pasture, I noticed that the pastern straps on one of my Renegade hoof boots was broken. The boot had hundreds of miles on it, a real veteran of the trail. The stitching had simply worn out.

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Our camp. It had rained on and off for days. That didn’t keep the mules from grazing all night. They’re hungry.
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This is the Renegade hoof boot in its more youth full days. Here, it’s being worn by mule Brick. (Lenoir, NC)
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The broken stitching.

Now if I’d been back home, riding out of our barn, I would have just grabbed a spare boot and tossed the ripped one on to the repair heap. Patch it up another day. To be fair to Renegade boots, repairing them is a breeze. They include a spare strap with every new set. If I’d felt lazy, I could have just switched out the strap.

But here I was standing in a pasture a long way from home. And I hadn’t brought an extra strap with me. I needed to patch up the one I had.

With all the rain we’ve had, our mules’ hooves are soft. The trail ahead is hard. Much of the route we’re following is paved road or gravel trail. Those abrasive surfaces, up against the mules’ rain-softened hooves, means the hoof material wears away much faster than it grows back. Hitting the trail barefoot isn’t really an option.

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The terrain around here. This is Rich Hill Road, outside Creston, NC. Look closely and you’ll see all our mules are wearing boots.

Sure, we could have used steel shoes on our mules’ hooves. But I think it’s much better for a mule to go unshod. This allows the mule’s hoof to expand and contract, which, long term, is much healthier for the hoof and legs. In addition, these hoof boots protect the foot from undo wear and sharp objects.

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Mixed herd: We use 3 brands of hoof boots. They are (front to back) Renegade, Cavallo and Easy Boot. (Watauga County, NC)

Standing there in that soggy pasture, broken hoof boot in hand, it was time to get sewing. Okay, “sewing” is a grand word for what, in the end, amounted to ten stitches and as many minutes of effort. Here are some photos of my “sewing kit” and the finished repair.

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The needle in a hat band. No, it doesn’t stick me in the head because…
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….I put the sharp end behind the elastic band. When I’m feeling especially prepared – or pessimistic – I pre-thread the needles.
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The completed repair.
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Here’s what the repaired strap looks like back in action. The repaired part is under the two elastic rings.

Repair completed, I tucked my needle back in to my hat band. I clamped the hat on my head. We saddled our mules and rode off in to a new day.

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Let the day begin. The boot repair got us 15 miles up the road. We reached Dasmscus, Virginia that evening.

So what else do I keep tucked up in my hat? Aha, that’s a post for another day. Until then, keep your stitches tight, your dental floss handy and your needle tucked away.

Posted Sunday September 30, 2018 by Bernie
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Let the Photos Speak
September 27, 2018

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Julia working on her relationship with mule Dusty. He’s actually a lovable hard working mule…just has some quirks. She borrowed him from our good friend Ronald Hudson for this trip.

Some days words capture our mule ramble best. Other days it’s photos. Today’s one of those picture days. Julia captures the mule ramble mood on her Saddle Under the Stars blog. Some beautiful scenery and mule interaction is just a click away.

Posted Thursday September 27, 2018 by Bernie
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Tent Goodnight
September 26, 2018

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The tent tonight. For us, this is luxury lodging: we’re set up inside a cow barn.(Damascus, VA)
Goodnight from our tent. It’s been a rainy day for mule travel. Julia and I are holed up waiting dryer weather. We’re here in Mike Johnson’s cow barn (Damascus, VA) cozy and dry, grateful for all the fine folks that have taken care of us during our mule ramble. Here’s what it’s like inside our tent tonight. Enjoy. Sleep tight. Bernie Bernie Harberts, Bernie Harberts photo, Julie Carpenter, ride out the front gate, riverearth.com, mule, horse, trail ride, western North Carolina, packing, adventure, voyage, horse voyage, mule voyage, tent, barn, cow barn
My mattress and pillow. It it all looks vaguely familiar that’s because it is. The “pillowcase” is my red bandana, a gift of my great mule buddy Ronald Hudson. The pillow “stuffing” is my pin stripe coveralls. My blanket is the wool blanket I use under my saddle. The “mattress” is my saddle pad. After a long day in the saddle, with the rain on the roof and the mules in the grass, it’s Heaven.
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Mood lighting: this tiny, solar powered light provides plenty of light for us to eat, read and write by. Like much of our gear it was a gift from a friend. Thanks Doug!
Posted Wednesday September 26, 2018 by Bernie
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About the First 100 Miles
September 25, 2018

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Morning execise: no this isn’t some fancy yoga move like the Upward Mule. It’s Julia shaking the grass out of our tent. Mule Brick is looking on. We do this every morning before we fold up out tent, rope it to Polly’s pack saddle and hit the trail.

It’s about Mile 100 of our mule journey. We have settled in to the mule ramble pace. I say “about” Mile 100 because we don’t really know how far we’ve come. And we don’t care any more.
That’s the sort of trip we’re on. It’s a journey defined by paper maps, the thickness of mule hide and the durability of our own.

We’re not navigating by GPS so we don’t have way points we can hold up proudly like a stringer of fish. This week, we rode our mules up a country road past a barn with a basketball hoop bolted to the chestnut siding. The center line served as the free throw line. This county defies smart phone navigation. There’s no service in these hills.

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Country road or basket ball court? Hmmm…. Finally, I’ve found a rim I can dunk….from my mule’s back.
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The long view. In addition to keeping your eyes open to gauge your shot, you’ll need to keep your ears open for traffic.
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Our mule ramble has taken us in to the heart of rural Appalachia. Architecturally, this area is stunning. Many of the old dwellings, like this beautifully built old home, are sided in chestnut boards. Most are abandoned. (Creston, NC)
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A hand carved knob on a corn crib.
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Hay barn as cathedral: a look in to an old barn. Many of these have hipped roofs almost appear of Dutch descent, an odd look in this land where most folks are of English, Scotch and Irish descent.
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Land of the Paper Maps: no your cell phone won’t work here. Moments after we took this photo, a panicked-looking motorist rolled to a stop alongside us and asked, “where does this road come out?”. He’d been relying on his smartphone for guidance. We nodded gravelly, like locals, and said, “Highway 58 outside Creston”. We only felt mildly like frauds. The men with smartphones may conquer the earth, but in these parts, it’s the visitors with maps that find their way out. ( north of Creston, NC)

I own a smart phone. Mostly I use it for its hot spot. That way, I can write blogs on my laptop from the road. I also use it for getting a sense of the route ahead. But here’s what I’ve learned about its limitations.

You can try to plan your mule ramble all you want. Sit at your laptop. Zoom in on Google Maps and preview your intended route way past midnight. Pick all the back roads you think will have the least traffic. The thought is, once you’re out there, you’ll just follow some invisible, digital line across the land. Like you’re driving a car or bike to a pre-determined destination.

Then this happens.

You’re riding up some winding road and some dude in a red truck asks you where you’re from. The conversation goes like this:
Dude: Where are you coming from?
You: Lenoir, NC, about 100 miles away from here.
Dude: Wow. Where are you going?
You: We saw on our map we could get to Mountain City on the back roads and then get up to Grayson Highlands to see the wild ponies
Dude: Oh hell no. Don’t do that! That’s a terrible road. Way too many cars and not enough shoulder. You’ll get flattened! What you need to do is take Rich Hill Road about 2 miles from here and then…..”
And then the Dude calls his friend and writes the directions on a scrap of paper. He spells out, in words on that piece of paper, how we get from where we’re standing to a place 40 miles away. All on back roads, many of them gravel. And at the end of the road, he says, there’s this amazing 35 mile long Rails-to-Trails route that takes us to a place way more amazing then we’d ever tried to plan out. From there, we can get to the ponies.

And we take his advice. We trade in our original plan for his. And that’s how, slowly, our voyage has become that of all those we’ve met along the way.

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Julia calls it “chatting”. I call it “route planning”. Here, I’m talking with a gentleman about where the road we’re on leads to. Okay, it turned in to a delightful chat about how young ducks run on the water before they learn to fly. Mule Brick enjoyed the stop, too. She never wastes an opportunity for a bite of grass. This really is a social and satisfying way to lay out a journey. And learn about ducks.
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Meet Jay Williams. Julia and I were looking for a place to stay in Creston, NC. The mules were tied up in front of the community center. Jay walked up and offered us a place to stay. We accepted. Then we had to go back and apologize to the folks at the community center for offering us a place to tie up out back. What a wonderful show of hospitality. Thanks Jay and Creston community center.NC.
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The road to Jay’s. We could have never planned this in advance. Jay built these roads himself, a wonderful testament to him as both landowner and artist (he’s a carpenter by trade).
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Day’s end. Two hours before this photo was taken, we hadn’t a clue where we were going to spend the night with our mules. Then we met Jay….

Sure, before we headed out, Julia and I tried to get a rough idea of where we wanted to go. Like I said, I have a smartphone.
We wanted to wake up in our beds, saddle up our mules, ride out the front gate and head in to the North Carolina mountains.
That’s how our journey started, August 31, when we set off with mules Polly, Brick and Dusty.
And then the trip, as Steinbeck says, started taking us.
It took us 6 days to travel the first 20 miles. 4 days later, Hurricane Florence chased us off the road. That was in West Jefferson, NC.

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The rain begins. (Trout, NC)
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By West Jefferson, hurricane Florence, which was heading our way, got our attention. We took a break from the road to wait out the wet weather. (West Jefferson, NC)

When we got back on the road, folks we met along the way talked us in to better routes. Sent us to better friends. Fed us better food than ANYTHING we had originally set out to see.

And so, about 100 miles in to the trip, we have settled in to the pace of word of mouth, weather and terrain. When the word of mouth is too good to resist, we don’t. If the weather is too wet, our mule’s feet get too soft. So they wear too much and just stay put. And when the terrain throws a road-less ridge in our route, we go around. Or turn back. Or just stare at that ridge, put our arms around each other and say, “damn, look at that ridge.”
We’ve had folks tell us we could download mapping software that works offline. But they’re missing the point. We want to experience the land and the people. And the more we cling to a digitally pre-digested itinerary, the farther we’re removed from the nitty gritty insights of local knowledge.
We understand the futility of measuring mileage and knowing everything before we get there. These are the wrong units o measure things by. When we get somewhere that puzzles us we linger. We may look at our paper map. Or not. And then we move on. Or we ask for help.
Our screens have gone mostly dark. We’re not counting the miles any more.

Here’s a look at some of the country and people we’ve come across in our mule ramble.

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We try to stick to gravel roads and trails when possible. Here, the end of Rich Hill Road outside Creston, NC.
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Another day, another mountain gravel road. We followed this one, East Big Springs Road, almost to Virginia. At one point, when we felt mildly turned around, we turned our smartphone on for help. It tried to steer us down a cow path in to a forest. We turned it off and asked a local, Jim Farmer, for directions. He set us straight. Thanks Mr Farmer!
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Tent life.
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River and dale must be crossed. Here, Julia leads Brick and Polly across a trestle on the Virginia Creeper Trail. This Rail to Trails path runs from the North Carolina border to Abindgon, Virginia.

Post Script: You can read Julia’s take on our mule ramble, with a great sense of our day-to-day lives on the road, at ConsideringAnimals.com

Post Post Script: Julia, the mules and I are holed up in Damascus, VA, waiting out a patch of wet weather. A draft mule-big thanks to Mike and Cindy Johnson for putting us up.

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The Johnsons. Mike Johnson is with Allstate and raises cattle. We met him by riding our mules up his driveways and asking, in effect, “can we spend the night in your pasture?” Thanks for the sense of humor – and pasture – Mike! (Damascus, VA)

This’ll let mules Polly, Brick and Dusty eat some much needed grass and let their feet dry out (the wet conditions have made them tender, even with hoof boots on). From Damascus, we plan to head toward Grayson Highlands via the Iron Mountain Trail. Unless, in the course of my chatting, er, route planning, I find a better route. I do not intend to consult Google Maps.

Post Post Post Script: Another big thanks to the folks at Mojos Trailside Cafe and Coffee in Damscus, VA for letting us use their wifi to get this post up.

Posted Tuesday September 25, 2018 by Bernie
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Chris: Worm Wrangler
September 20, 2018

The man hunched over the plastic container on the side of the road was grabbing at the dirt. We’d seen all sorts of sight on our mule ramble. So far, though, nobody shuffling through the damp leaves on the shoulder looking for, what the hell….? Meet Chris, worm seeker.

Posted Thursday September 20, 2018 by Bernie
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The Mule Ramble so Far
September 19, 2018

bernie harberts Julia carpenter trail ride Eustace Conway turtle island audio recording mule horse
Our route to date. We started our ramble at our front gate.

Three weeks ago we started our mule ramble. We rode out the farm gate with our three mules and headed in to North Carolina’s High County. Ten days later, Hurricane Florence chased us off the road. Julia just posted the mule ramble equivalent of the “half time report” on her Saddle Under the Stars blog. It’s a great read on our adventure to date. It’s about dealing with the cards you’ve been dealt and how we didn’t knock out the famous mountain man Eustace Conway. Read all about it here.

Posted Wednesday September 19, 2018 by Bernie
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The Singing ex-Monk Dave Demour
September 19, 2018

It’s a rainy Sunday. We’re taking a short break from the mule ramble to wait out Hurricane Florence. We’re sorting photos, editing footage and reflecting on some of the interesting people we met during our amble through the western North Carolina hills.
One of the memorable people we’re thinking back on is Dave Demour. Dave’s an amazing stone artist, ex-monk, singer song writer and resiedent of Todd, NC. We could tell you more about Dave but this video sums up Dave’s talent and energy better than we can describe in words. Enjoy. This should really put a smile on your face.

Posted Wednesday September 19, 2018 by Bernie
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Looking for Eustace
September 18, 2018

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Our tent. This is where we made the recording below.

Eustace Conway: mountain man from “Mountain Men”. Here’s a Sunday evening story about how Julia and I try to track him down on our mule ramble.
It’s night. We’re stretched out in our pitch black tent (see pic above). We’re recording our musings. Crank up the volume. Kick back and chill.
(Post Script: this recording was made last week. We’re holed up right now at our cabin waiting for hurricane Florence to blow herself out.)

You can listen in right here.

Posted Tuesday September 18, 2018 by Bernie
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Slow Morons in Road
September 18, 2018

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Drivers beware…(Todd, NC)

We think we’re on a noble quest: rambling the back roads aboard our mules. Drivers, and the occasional sign maker, might have a different view… (Todd, NC)

Posted Tuesday September 18, 2018 by Bernie
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Mule Ramble Camps
September 13, 2018

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Camp #2: Leatherwood Mountains (Darby, NC)

Stressing about Hurricane Florence? Julia has posted a photo of each of our camps during our mule ramble. Just looking at them will calm you down. They’re on Julia’s blog Saddle Under the Stars. We’re holed up waiting for the storm to pass. We’ll resume the ramble as soon as the weather settles.

Posted Thursday September 13, 2018 by Bernie
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